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In Shift, Allstate's Call Center Won't Compete With Agents

   By Erik Holm 

NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- In a major strategy shift, Allstate Corp. (ALL) plans to change the way it handles customers who call the company's toll-free number or visit its website, so that all new policyholders will be assigned to one of its thousands of agents in local offices across the U.S. after the sale is completed.

The change, expected to be completed by the first quarter of 2013, will mean the company's call center and website will complement the agents' work instead of competing with them for new business. It was announced Wednesday by Matthew Winter, the head of Allstate's home- and auto-insurance unit, at a massive gathering of the company's sales force in Las Vegas.

The change in the way the company handles its potential customers comes after the October acquisition of online auto-insurer Esurance, purchased as part of a $1 billion deal. The deal means customers who want to buy coverage without an agent can contact its Esurance subsidiary instead of Allstate's main call center or website.

The shift in strategy is likely to be welcomed by the roughly 10,000 Allstate agents. The agents--who are classified as independent contractors, not employees--presumably will see a bump in pay from the customers Allstate sends their way, though it's unclear if Allstate plans to pay a smaller commission on accounts that originated from the company's call center or the website.

Many agents have been at odds with Allstate in recent months, as the company has moved to alter their commission structure, issued incorrect compensation reports and tax forms, and raised prices to combat a rise in claims costs.

This week's meeting at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas was the first time in recent memory all of the company's agents had been invited to a single gathering. The meeting included a performance by the Blue Man Group theatrical company and surprise appearances by Dennis Haysbert and Dean Winters, the actors who serve as the company's primary pitchmen.

It also included presentations by Chief Executive Tom Wilson and several senior executives, and workshops to discuss sales initiatives and other company issues.

The executives told the attendees they were working to reduce the amount of time agents need to spend in training and improve the software agents use, according to several accounts. And Winter earned a round of applause by saying the company wants to make its prices more competitive to a broader range of potential customers so agents don't waste as much time drawing up price quotes only to find that Allstate is offering an unattractive rate.

But the change in strategy involving the call center and website has the potential to have the biggest impact. Allstate spokesman Brian Faith said Friday the "operational aspect of this continues to be worked through," but that the call center and website will be used "to help promote and reinforce the agency relationship."

"We will continue to sell products and services through the call center and online, but all new business generated through these channels will be assigned to an agent," Faith said.

-By Erik Holm, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2892;


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 11, 2012 16:29 ET (20:29 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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